Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning remains in a high security US Military Prison on a 35-year sentence for passing nearly a quarter of a million classified files to Wikileaks in 2010. This play centres on the relationship between Aaron Swartz, a Manning supporter, computer programmer, and hacktivist, and his childhood (now estranged) friend, Billy. Swartz, played by Matt Steiner, is a stereotypical manic computer nerd, complete with black t-shirt, cargo shorts, and fizzy drink addiction. Billy, played by E. James Ford, is a harder to pin down and, in many respects, more awkward character. He is older than Swartz and carries with him both guilt and anger about a childhood incident in which Billy nearly murdered Swartz. It is partly because of this guilt that Billy reluctantly yields to Swartz’s request that Billy help him write a play about a fictional meeting between President Obama and Chelsea Manning on January 19th, 2017, the evening before Obama will leave office and when Presidential pardons are traditionally granted.
An extremely interesting play
This is a play that analyses the behaviour of the Obama administration towards whistleblowers and activists like Manning and Swartz. It has a clear political purpose, with information on a petition for Chelsea Manning being handed out before the show and postcards (for audience members to write to Manning with) being handed out afterwards. The play does engage with the arguments against Manning’s behaviour and for her imprisonment, and in this case it is Billy who is the devil’s advocate.
The play’s climax is the play within a play about a short meeting between Obama and Manning. As an imagining of Obama, one of the best known personalities on the planet, this scene falls short and is a disappointment compared to the rest of the show. As a result, the debates over the morals of open information and whistleblowing between Billy and Swartz are more interesting than the eventual showdown between Obama and Manning. The acting is good and the play in general avoids lazy left-wing condemnation of the United States, though it is uniformly sympathetic to Manning, and prefers instead to pitch an appeal to Obama’s better nature. It is certainly an extremely interesting play, done well, and only occasionally falls down at points dramatically.